Skiing in Hokkaido

Getting there

As they used to say in Monty Python, ".... and now for something completely different".

It was -2°C outside as our bus headed off into the monochromic snow-covered landscape of Hokkaido. We had met my brother and his family at Chitose airport after a long day of travelling - Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City to Tokyo to Chitose in 16 hours - and were on our way with them to the ski-fields of Niseko, the powder snow capital of Japan.

Climatically, culturally, economically, socially - this was a long way from Vietnam. However, I had long dreamed of skiing one day in Japan and the fact that my brother and family were visiting his wife's parents in Japan for the New Year and had planned this skiing holiday gave us the chance to join them and fulfil the dream.

A halo of cloud sits on Mt Yotei, the dominant feature of the Niseko landscape


Map of Niseko ski runs

For another 2½ hours, the bus slowly wound up across the mountains and past lakes and volcanic cones, frozen rivers, snow-covered flats and farmhouses. The low sun finally set as we approached Hirafu, the main centre of the ski-field, above it the slopes were bathed in the soft glow of banks of floodlights; this is the land of night-skiing. Our first touch confirmed what our eyes had told us; this snow was the lightest and fluffiest that I had ever seen - probably the first real powder snow that we had experienced. We may have been tired, but the adrenalin was already rising - bring on tomorrow.

Skiing Niseko

This is not primarily a skiing diary, so I will confine the comments to a summary of each day - mainly to give an idea of the variability in snow and weather that could be expected over a 5-day period in January.

Day 1 - a mixed day of sun, cloud and light snowfall. The slopes were beautifully groomed and off-piste areas had thigh-deep dry powder - spent the day exploring the runs of the Grand Hirafu sector, venturing off piste on occasion to float through the deep stuff - the skis suddenly become silent and the ride like standing on a spongy mattress. I like it. The top of Niseko Mountain, only 1380m tall, drifts in and out of the cloud, while across the valley lies the the dominant landmark of this area - the perfect volcanic cone of Mt Yotei. Today it was playing hide and seek in the clouds.

Lower slopes of Grand Hirafu

Looking toward Mt Niseko and the top runs of Grand Hirafu

Day 2 - the others had spent the previous day having lessons (some had skied many years ago, others not at all), so today my brother joined the fair Nello and I to further our exploration in the morning, skiing over the top to the Niseko sector. The day was almost perfect with the sun out in full and Mt Yotei revealed in all its conic splendour. There is not as much choice in this sector, but a great run down a winding road through the forest. In the afternoon, the fair Nello and I explored the broad gentler slopes of the Hanazono sector - great for beginner and intermediate skiers. Finished off with some top to bottom runs under lights.

The trees were cloaked in a mantle of powder snow

The wider landscape of Niseko

The failr Nello and my brother at the top runs

Day 3 - high cloud seems to be moving in and change is in the air. My brother, the fair Nello and I set off to explore the furthest sector, An'nupuri, but our high crossing is thwarted by the white-out conditions at the top - three times we end up back at the base of the same lift in 20m visibility conditions, so decide to do a few more runs on the long road of Niseko instead. The kids meanwhile are getting bored practicing on the beginner's runs, so we all go out together and give them some practice on the higher steeper runs of Grand Hirafu and Hanazono - it is amazing what progress they have made in 3 days. As usual, finish the day with a few fast runs under lights.


Niseko snow-trees

About to take the big run down to Hanozono

In search of An'Nupuri (or Nello
disappearing into the mists) (K.Briese)

Saturday - bad weather but big crowds

A perfect day and hardly any skiers - magic!

The last rays of sun on Yotei - viewed from the Hanazono Sector

Time to celebrate Tom's birthday (K.Briese)

Day 4 - the snow began to fall over night and continues for most of the day - it is not quite as fluffy or dry and the slopes quickly become lumpy as skiers carve up the freshly fallen snow. Combined with the flat light and difficulty in picking the contours, this is definitely not my favourite day. The confidence that I had built up over the past few days is dented. In the afternoon, Kym, Michael and I catch the bus over to An'Nupuri to explore that sector - the high route is still whited-out.

The snow starts to fall in Hirafu (K.Briese)

Looking down on Hirafu Village at night


A different view of Yotei from the Niseko Sector

The weather changes

Niseko Sector cable car in the
fog and snow

At the base of the flood-lit slopes

The fair Nello, not possessed of macho impulses, took the day off to rest her knees, but joined for the usual evening runs - the contours and fall of the slopes suddenly becomes crystal clear under lights - time to open the throttle and get that confidence back.

Day 5 - the snow continues and, as on the previous day, Mt Yotei remains hidden all day. The whole group shuttles over to An'Nupuri, as its lower slopes are good for practicing and improving technique. After 5 days, the 'learners' are doing parallels most of the time - very impressive. The fair Nello and I head to the top and finally make the high-crossing in reverse, skiing the Niseko sector before returning to Hirafu. Still, in this flat contour-free light, it is more work than pleasure. We take a break until dark - the floodlights come on and suddenly you can see the contours and surface of the slopes again - it gives us the opportunity to finish off the day in style with a few long fast runs. It also finishes our time in Niseko.

The white expanse of an Hokkaido winter landscape (from our bus window)

Home again - On cue, the fine weather returned on the day we left, boarding the bus for the return trip across the majestic snowy landscape of Hokkaido. Soon we were on the plane heading south; our muscles were sore and our bodies were tired, but our minds were on a high. It was great catching up with family and sharing such a good few days - the snow was brilliant, but the highlights were skiing in a group and watching the progress made those who had just put skis on for the first time, the fantastic local meals organised by Yoko and Miho (local knowledge is a big advantage) and the nightly Onsen - relaxing in hot springs as the rising steam melted the falling snowflakes above you.

Thanks, Kym, Yoko, Kris, Tom and Doug, for letting us join you on your holiday - it was a great (if somewhat unusual) way to finish our Vietnam adventure.